three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
user_rating: 
0

A-Lost Memory of SkinSince 1974, Russell Banks, who has been short-listed twice for the Pulitzer Prize, has written a dozen novels, including Rule of the Bone (1995), Cloudsplitter (1998), and Affliction (1989), as well as poetry and short story collections. In Lost Memory of Skin, Banks, a shrewd commenter on American culture and values, examines the lives of a young sex offender and his outwardly successful, morally questionable mentor. Recently reviewed: The Reserve ( 2.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2008).

The Story: Addicted to Internet pornography from an early age and caught in a police sting when he arranges to meet an underage girl online, the 22-year-old Kid, along with his pet iguana, winds up living in a tent under a Calusa County, Florida, causeway. When the Professor, a renowned, larger-than-life sociologist who studies these outcasts, discovers the Kid after a law-enforcement raid of the tent camp, he takes on the young man as a rehabilitation project. Of the two, it's hard to tell who is more mysterious--or dangerous. "The world is full of people who aren't who or what they say they are," the Kid learns--the hard way. His journey into society's underbelly ultimately bears that out.
Ecco/HarperCollins. 416 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780061857638

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Banks may be the most compassionate fiction writer working today, and the Kid is only his most recent lens into the souls of seemingly decent men who do terribly indecent things out of ignorance, thirst and desperation in a deeply uncaring world. ... [A]t its hyper-real best Lost Memory of Skin is proof that Banks remains our premier chronicler of the doomed and forgotten American male, the desperate and the weak, men whose afflictions and antagonists may change over the years but whose fundamental struggle never does." Helen Schulman

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Lost Memory of Skin is a major new work by Russell Banks destined to be a canonical novel of its time. ... Mr. Banks, whose great works resonate with such heart and soul, brings his full narrative powers to bear on illuminating this still largely unexplored new terrain." Janet Maslin

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite its difficult subject matter, Lost Memory of Skin has promise as enormous as the Professor himself. It's a promise unfulfilled, but like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lost Memory of Skin is a compelling read and an indictment of our age." Ellen Kanner

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"When people interact more with online images than with other human beings, how do we untie those knotted strands of reality and fantasy? Banks shows that it is difficult and never conclusive--and that it matters." Richard Wakefield missing image file

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Banks knows plot, and incorporates intriguing complications to keep the novel building power all the way to the end. ... But I was ever aware of Mr. Banks just offstage, moving his characters and tweaking his prose with hopes of nudging me toward the Right conclusions." Karen Sandstrom

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"There is the temptation to make too explicit the allegorical meaning of events, and Banks succumbs to that temptation. ... Still, like so much else Banks has written, this novel is ambitious and often compelling--a book that works with important ideas about the way we're reshaping our lives in the Internet age, while being reshaped ourselves, spiritually, sexually." Sue Miller

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Lost Memory of Skin wants to be a novel of ideas: Even the monstrous among us are human; social science explains nothing meaningful; shame is not guilt. But it fails to dramatize those ideas compellingly." John Repp

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Banks] wants to tell the story of a sad little sex offender and his equally pathetic worldly mentor; but he also wants to tell the story of the depredations of civilization as enacted through the natural, cultural and political history of the Florida peninsula. And this requires the sort of density of insight and prose that distinguish Russell Banks' writing but are far beyond the vehicles he has chosen in this novel." Ellen Akins

Critical Summary

Russell Banks has always had an attraction for the quirky and flawed among us--the abolitionist John Brown as portrayed in Cloudsplitter, for instance--and in Lost Memory of Skin, he introduces two of his more memorable, if controversial, characters. The Professor, in particular, over-the-top and enigmatic with his catch-all philosophy and a secret past, is "a disturbingly original character ... but also at times an unfathomable one" (New York Times). And that's where Banks shines--in the twilight region somewhere between right and wrong, scrutinizing society and its attitudes toward the people it creates while taking stock of his characters' humanity. The story certainly doesn't want for hot-button issues, and critics weren't in consensus over how well (or how subtly) Banks handles the setup or the resolution. Has he chosen the right characters, or does he have too heavy a hand in the story line? Such are the issues that spawn decidedly mixed reviews.